The Decline and Fall of the Facebook Empire

NEWS ANALYSIS: Last week was a very bad week for Facebook, and things are going to get much worse, which means you need to evaluate your use of the platform for your business.

Facebook privacy

When Edward Gibbon wrote in 1776 his then comprehensive history of what happened to Rome and the civilization it created, he probably never realized that “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” could just as easily have been about 21st century Facebook. But in fact, watching Facebook’s self-immolation is very much like watching the collapse of Rome over the course of 1,500 years, but in a much shorter time. Make no mistake, Facebook is dying. It’s in a slow-motion collapse around its structures and users who don’t see it clearly, yet.

And just as vestiges of Rome and its empire remain, so will parts of Facebook. But the edifice is crumbling, and the signs are everywhere. In addition to Facebook’s very bad week last week that started with a systemic collapse from what should have been an easily fixed misconfiguration. Then on another front, word came from The New York Times that Facebook was under criminal investigation for its data sharing deals with a variety of technology companies, including Amazon and Apple.

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission is negotiating a multibillion-dollar penalty for Facebook’s violations of its consent agreement. And in the UK, Parliament physically compelled the turnover of secret Facebook documents that show a breathtaking disregard for user privacy—and a knowing, intentional effort to violate laws on the use of personal information. The UK has requested that the FTC assist in its investigation.

In Europe, Facebook is already under investigation for violations of the GDPR. Those investigations are well along. Already Facebook is facing fines of €1.6 billion and has already been fined £500,000 in the UK for its illegal activities. And there’s more to come.

The only reason you’re not reading about criminal penalties in the U.S. is because a dysfunctional federal government can’t find a way to pass privacy protection regulations. But the states in the U.S. may take care of that. In a meeting of state attorneys general in Washington recently, there was much discussion about ways the states can rein in technology companies, especially Facebook. Meanwhile, the attorney general for the District of Columbia went to court to sue Facebook over deception in its collecting and monetizing of user data. 

It’s beginning to sound like in addition to being a social media platform, Facebook may also be a criminal enterprise. While there’s currently no indication that the Department of Justice is looking at RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) charges, the DoJ is still investigating Facebook about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and that is likely to result in charges. Whether those charges could be part of a larger RICO investigation depend on what other charges might considered. Most of the possible components of RICO don’t involve Facebook, but there’s always wire fraud and obstruction of justice, and RICO only needs two.

What Does All of This Mean for Your Business?

So the question now has to be, do you really want your business to depend on the existence of an organization that’s looking more and more like it may not be long for this world? Do you want your brand to be associated with one that is becoming more and more tarred with unethical behavior in the extreme?

Probably not. So what can you do about it? Consider Facebook to be something like those plastic yard signs you can buy for $11 a pop. They announce your business, they let people know what you do and how to reach you, and when they get blown away or stolen by neighborhood kids looking for something to sled on, you just find a place for another one.

Facebook can be a good place for public outreach, especially since it can (sometimes unethically) target who you’re wishing to reach, making it a useful tool. Despite the fact that its numbers are already in decline, there are still a lot of users. So, done carefully, Facebook can be useful.

But for the sake of your business, it’s critical that you examine what Facebook is getting from you and your users besides the money you pay them. Are you allowing the social network to have ANY user information? If so, what information are you allowing? Should you disclose it to your users and customers?

Perhaps more important, what is Facebook learning about your business? What are you turning over that would reveal your business processes? How about your customer list? Your products? Facebook has already been found to be using this information for its own purposes without permission, and in fact is actively working around the need to get permission. Can your business take this risk?

Considering the decay that’s already happening, a business presence somewhere else would seem warranted. A set of redundant cloud accounts (you need business continuity) with robust security protection can give your organization a level of stability and permanence that is no longer available from Facebook, and probably not at Google alone (Google has its own investigations and outages).

You can still accomplish everything you want with a presence on Facebook as long as you don’t do more than point people to the real business location in the cloud, where your risks are dramatically lower. And when Facebook falls or is broken up, you won’t lose much during the uncertainty.

And yes, I’m following my own advice. My business is moving to a brand-new presence in the cloud. As soon as I can get the coding done.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...